Perhaps it was the abundance of concrete, or the year-round painting season, or the city full of Mexican workers that made Los Angeles the place where murals began to be a predominant art form. Or perhaps it was because an entire population – the majority of the city – had been “disappeared” in textbooks, in the media, in cultural markers of place, and needed to find a way to reclaim a city of Mexican and indigenous roots.
In 1932, a mural was painted on Olvera Street, the birthplace of Los Angeles, by the great maestro David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist/painter. Siqueiros was the last of Los Tres Grandes (The Three Great Muralists), who after the 1910 revolution in Mexico began a cultural revolution that taught the precepts of the revolution and the history of Mexico through murals. Siqueiros, the most revolutionary of the three in materials usage, social intent and content, worked for a period of time in Los Angeles. His 80-foot-long mural America Tropical spoke to the exploitation of the Mexican worker. Commissioned by the city fathers for a Bavarian beer garden (owned by a Nazi), the mural was intended to depict a kitchsy Mexican village scene for the benefit of tourists. Instead, Siqueiros made the central image of the mural a crucified figure.
With increasing demand for low-wage immigrant labor and massive migrations of Mexican and Central American workers to Los Angeles over the last 10 or 15 years, this image is even more relevant today than in the 1930s. The mural was partially whitewashed shortly after its completion, and then fully painted over within its first year on public view, beginning a legacy of censorship that still haunts Los Angeles. In the 1970s, 40 years after it was painted over, the image began to reemerge from the whitewash. We saw this as a symbol, an aparicion (religious apparition) coinciding with the growth of Los Angeles’s Mexican population and strength of the Chicano movement.
Siqueiros prophesied that someday every street corner of Los Angeles would have a mural, brought about by the freeing of the artist from the tyranny of laborious frescos. Siqueiros predicted that a form of muralism would exist somewhere between the moving picture and photography. He did not know of computers, but I would like to think he would have embraced the role they are now playing in mural production at Cesar Chavez Digital Mural Lab of SPARC (the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which I co-founded in 1976).
Murals in Los Angeles were the first artistic medium to support and then shape a movement toward identity and justice that reached a mass population. This artistic occupation of public space forged a strong visual presence of a people who at that time (late 60s, early 70s) lacked representation in public life, with neither voice in elections, nor elected representatives. No person of Latino descent served on the City Council or on the School Board, despite the fact that in actual numbers we were fast becoming the majority of the population. Parallel to and perhaps growing from this new visual strength, many citizens of emerging Latino communities organized, with very little money and freely given labor, toward the mutual goal of improving the conditions of their communities. While many of the early Chicano Muralists were the first generation with advanced degrees in their communities, a racially unsophisticated society tied the Chicano artist to the conditions of the barrios, or Latino neighborhoods, regardless of their educational status. SPARC was born of the spirit of this movement, taking its name from the notion that it takes only a spark to start a prairie fire. The organization has been intent on nurturing this healthy fire within the city as a whole for 25 years.
As the fire of muralism progressed, distinctions began to emerge. Apart from its initial purpose of creating a capacity for the imagery of the people to occupy public space, Los Angeles murals spoke to the cultural demands of previously under-represented peoples. Some works became cultural-affirmation images, asserting only that we exist as distinct cultures; others addressed the hard task of articulating and advocating for resolution of issues affecting the places where our people lived and worked.
Get More information: Murals